On the Heather Train to Groß Schönebeck, Brandenburg

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On a Saturday morning we took the S-Bahn north of Wedding to a suburb of Berlin that sits on the Panke River not far from the Berlin-Brandenburg border. I had read about Karow as being home to a series of ponds, small lakes and wetlands that are popular with the local birdlife, but that exploration would have to wait for another day. We were there to catch the Heidekrautbahn or the Heather Train to Groß Schönebeck, the town at the end of the line and on the edge of the Schorfheide, one of Germany’s biggest forests and a place we had been once before.

This time we were going to stay overnight at the cabin of some friends, shoot bow and arrows at makeshift targets in the woods, and cook dinner on an open fire that would keep us warm as we drank beer until the early hours. And that is what we did, but first we had to get there and it was time for one of those funny little trains that operate on the branch lines of Brandenburg to take us north to the edge of the forest.

The Heidekrautbahn was opened in 1901, built to deliver Berliners to the lakes and forests of Niederbarnim and the Niederbarnimers to the bright lights of the big city. On the Saturday morning it was clear that this was a train devoted to leisure, its single carriage filled with hikers and cyclists heading north for the weekend, and judging by the number of people who got off there, to the natural attractions in and around the lakeside town of Wandlitz. There are a lot of reasons to get off there – after all, it is such a pleasant location that the head honchos of the GDR decided to build their fortified compound complete with private beach on the edge of the town – but we were on the train for the duration, ready for our adventure in the woods.

Our friends’ cabin is in a little colony at the north end of town, down a dusty trail and surrounded by other such weekend houses and a few that looked, judging by the size and satellite dishes clinging to the brickwork, more permanent residences. These weekend retreats, although sometimes as manicured and landscaped as those allotment garden colonies you see on the edges of Berlin, have a wilder feel, and there are no committees checking on the length of your lawn or what ratio of vegetables to flowers you have. The few people we came across, leaning on their fences or walking along the trail, seemed to be friendly, but it only took a few minutes of walking away from the houses and into the forest that you felt as if you had the whole place to yourself.

Both days we walked, through different sections of forest, some planted, some much wilder-looking, over some sandy dunes and close to the odd farmer’s field. We could pick out the parts of the ground where boars had rummaged, or holes in the trees where the woodpeckers pecked, but there was not much wildlife in view during the daytime apart from so many ants attempting to find their way up our trouser legs. Lotte went exploring with her friend through the trees, out of sight (but not earshot), and we marvelled at how far away Berlin could feel when we were really so close. On the Sunday afternoon the clouds darkened as we waited for the Heather Train to take us home again, and we returned to a Berlin damp from the first summer rainstorm of the season. Pushing open the door to our apartment I felt as we had been gone for days, rather than the barely 36 hours since we had made our way north to Karow. And as always in these situations, we sat on our balcony and made a resolution to do it again, as soon as possible…

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Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig

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